Dilma in hot water
UPDATE: The Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Brazilian Congress, voted 367-137 to impeach Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Sunday, April 18, 2016.
The impeachment motion now goes to the Senate, which should decide whether to accept or not by May 10. If they do, President Dilma will be immediately suspended as president for a maximum of 180 days. The Senate will then have to vote on the measure.
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
Brazilians are experiencing unprecedented political tension as the impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff moves swiftly ahead. On Thursday, the Supreme Court met in a special session for eight hours to hear the government’s petition to have the impeachment stopped. The court in the end voted 8-2 to allow the process to go forward.
Speeches for and against the impeachment started being given in the lower house of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies, on Friday morning. They are scheduled to run in a marathon session until Sunday morning, with only a few breaks late at night to give the 513 congressmen a chance to sleep. On Sunday, the deputies will start voting on the impeachment. If Dilma is impeached by the lower house, she will be suspended as president for 180 days, during which the Senate will have to debate and vote on the motion. Vice-president Michel Temer, who is the son of Lebanese immigrants, will immediately assume the presidency as soon as the lower house votes in favor of the impeachment. If he does make it, he will be Brazil’s first ever president of Arab descent.
According to polls taken by all the major newspapers, Dilma will lose the vote in the House of Deputies and in the Senate too. She seems to realize that she is on the way out, but in interviews this past week has vowed to fight to the last minute. The Folha de Sao Paulo counted 338 votes in favor of her impeachment in the lower house, with 123 votes against the motion, and 52 lawmakers still undecided. For the motion to pass they would need 342 votes. In the Senate, out of a total of 81 senators, the paper counts 44 senators in favor of impeachment, 19 against and 18 undecided. For the motion to pass only 41 votes are needed.
The whole impeachment process has sharply divided Brazilians along ideological lines. Poorer Brazilians and leftist intellectuals have remained strong supporters of President Dilma and her Workers’ Party, though most will not deny that she has not handled the economy well at all. Middle class and wealthier Brazilians have been leading the massive protests against the president and her party, calling on her to be impeached or for her resignation.
Both pro- and anti-impeachment groups have called for huge rallies on Sunday across the nation. Fearing that violence may break out between the opposing groups, the governor of the Federal District ordered that a 2-meter high metal be installed in the Esplanade of the Ministries, a grassy mall that runs from the central bus station to Congress in the center of Brasilia, with all of the ministries ranged on either side of the mall.
The wall is one-kilometer long and has already been dubbed the “Berlin Wall” and the “Wall of Shame” of Brasilia by locals upset at seeing their public space so sharply divided. The federal minister of justice called it a “crazy idea” in a television interview. Some observers have said they fear that violence may break out between the Movimento dos Sem Terra (Movement for the Landless) activists and the pro-impeachment crowd. The MST members are known for using violent tactics in their protests, burning tires and throwing dangerous objects at riot police.
The polarization of Brazilian society caused by this political debate has become so severe that even a Brazilian doctor recently announced she could no longer the treat the child of a Workers’ Party activist because she could not stand the ruling party. The local doctors union defended the doctor’s decision, saying she should be proud of what she did, pointing out that no doctor is obliged to provide medical treatment to someone they did not like unless it is an emergency or they were the only doctor in the area.
In the meantime, Vice President Temer has been busy having meetings with groups of politicians, all eager to get an appointment in the new government they see coming soon. President Dilma has been decimated by the departure of the PMDB party from her ruling coalition, as well as that of a slew of smaller parties, and is trying to put on a brave face by visiting the camps of her ardent supporters who have traveled to Brasilia to protest for her on Sunday.
She has been looking very tired and run down in her public appearances. A major newsweekly magazine ran a particularly unflattering cover story claiming that the president was losing her mind because of all of the stress she has been under. Her defenders slammed the publication, claiming the article was sexist and mean-spirited. But the president has long had a reputation for being a tough woman who does suffer fools easily, and who regularly blows up and shouts at her ministers and staff members during meetings.
Supporters of the government call this impeachment a “coup attempt,” and many observers have pointed out that some of the congressmen voting for the impeachment have committed worse crimes than the president has. President Dilma has been accused of mismanaging government spending accounts by using creative accounting methods to hide the growing deficit.
We will have to wait and see if Temer as president will be able to turn around the Brazilian economy, which is going through one of its worst recessions in 100 years.
Dignity in manual labor
This column was printed in Arab News on March 27, 2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
There has been a long-held belief that Saudis cannot engage in manual labor such as being car mechanics, cashiers in stores or even cleaners. While there has never been a law decreeing such a ban, during the oil boom years from the 1980s and onward, there became installed in the minds of many foreigners, and Saudis themselves, that manual labor was beneath the dignity of all Saudis. The reasoning was that these jobs often made the person hot and dirty, were unpleasant, and paid poorly.
The stereotype that reigned was that every Saudi male, whether he was qualified or not, wanted to be a “mudeer” (boss/manager) and get a fat salary for sitting behind a desk in some ministry, drinking lots of tea and working little. With our ever-expanding population Saudis who did not have a university degree, and especially Saudi women, began looking for more work opportunities, which led many to these less than managerial jobs out of sheer necessity to make ends meet and pay the bills. Soon we began seeing young Saudis working in fast-food restaurants and Saudi women hired as cashiers at a major supermarket chain. This was a pleasant development that all found needful and rightful.
With our ongoing Saudization program to get more Saudis into gainful employment, our government has forced certain sectors to only hire Saudis. The latest work sector to be affected by this program has been cellphone shops that had been staffed predominantly until now by expatriates. One area that had never before hired Saudis was the cleaning one. Recently a town in Baha caused a small controversy when one of its officials declared that Saudis could not be hired as cleaners. His words implied that cleaning jobs were beneath the dignity of Saudis. This caused uproar among foreign workers in the Kingdom who noted that it was ridiculous that any category of work should be forbidden to Saudis for being too dirty or allegedly humiliating.
The sad fact is that so many foreigners believe that we Saudis were all born in golden cradles and have never had to fight for anything in our lives. Many of the younger Saudi generations must also believe this, especially those born after the 1970s. But we must remember that before the oil boom we were a poor country that did not have much wealth. Who do you think cleaned bathrooms in this country in the 1950s until the 1970s? Saudis of course! We did not have enough resources before that to import labor to do tasks such as clean the streets or work in restaurants.
All honest work, whether physical or mental, should be honored. Most Saudis have finally realized that not everyone can be a director and get a large salary for little work. I think they realize that to get somewhere in life requires hard work, studying and determination. Without these they won’t get very far. We must stop acting so surprised when we see Saudis working in jobs that we never thought they would ever accept. Economic necessity is having a good effect in the sense that is opening the eyes of younger Saudis that everything will not continue to be given to them on a plate. They will have to struggle for what they want, and they have already started to do so.
Allowing youth in malls
My column was printed in Arab News on Jan. 11, 2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
I was extremely happy to read on Friday that Makkah Gov. Prince Khaled Al-Faisal ordered lifting the ban on young men entering shopping malls and markets on the weekend.
This banning of young men in malls, especially teenagers, had become a norm in Jeddah and other cities as a way of protecting women from the unwanted attention and harassment that they suffered from some of the young men.
But punishing all young men for the ill deeds of a few was never fair, and Prince Khaled realized this and thus lifted the ban. One major reason for lifting the ban was that shops in these malls were losing money due to the absence of young customers. And so they complained to the authorities repeatedly, asking that the ban be lifted, and finally it was. As Arab News story pointed out, young men who work or study often only have time to go shopping for clothes in malls on the weekends, exactly when the bans were in place.
In the past I would often witness scores of young guys milling about the entrances to shopping malls in Jeddah, waiting for the security guards manning the entrances to become distracted for just a few seconds so that they could slip in. Many of them would approach women entering the mall, asking if they would be willing to act like they were siblings so that they could enter the mall with them. Many times huge arguments would erupt between guards and young men insisting that they be let in to join their family who were already inside. Most of the time the guards knew this was a farce, a lie told in order to be allowed inside. And it is true that many of these young guys just wanted to get inside in order to run after young women, try to talk to them and pass them their phone numbers.
Any young men, who genuinely needed to go shopping in a mall — to buy clothes, perfume or bags — unfortunately would be caught up in this situation and also be banned from entering. Even I was stopped many times when I needed to go shopping in a mall on weekends, even though I was not that young anymore.
As the report pointed out, quoting psychologists, this shunning of young men in malls creates feelings of exclusion and rejection that they said could lead to problems such as anti-social behavior. Just excluding bad-behaving men from malls only treats the symptoms and not the cause. Saudi parents should teach their boys from early on to respect girls and women. Unfortunately the ultra-segregation that we have in our society leaves many young men without the means with which to behave properly in public with girls and women that are not part of their families.
As more Saudi women keep joining the work force problems in how men interact with women will become more prevalent. And we should not put all of the blame on the men. Many young women also act foolishly in public, teasing and encouraging young men, some even throwing them their phone numbers. This only encourages irresponsible and dangerous behavior.
As Prince Khaled noted, it is the responsibility of the security guards at shopping malls to ensure proper enforcement of the rules and protect all shoppers. There is no reason why law-abiding young men should be made to pay the price for the shenanigans of others. It is only living and interacting together in public in a decent and honorable way, that Saudi men and women will learn how to get along.
Saudi women set to make their mark
This column was printed in the Nov. 01, 2015 issue of Arab News:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
I was extremely pleased to read that 1,039 Saudi women have registered to stand as candidates in the upcoming municipal elections to be held on Dec. 12. This is an achievement that all Saudis should be proud of, both men and women.
After all of the doom and gloom stories that I had read over the last few months, telling of the difficulty of women finding voter registration centers and the apparent lack of interest of some women in the elections, I expected fewer women to register as candidates.
As Jadee Al-Qahtani, head of the Municipal Elections Executive Committee, pointed out, the participation of women in these elections are very important since the municipal councils deal with local issues that affect the daily lives of all citizens. He also noted that the female candidates would be competing for seats on 212 councils or 75 percent of the total 284 councils. Not bad since it is the first time ever for Saudi women to be involved in elections.
Of course, when you compare the number of female candidates to the 6,400 male candidates, it seems like just a drop in the ocean. But women participating in civic life have to start somewhere, and I’m sure that the number of female candidates and voters will grow greatly in future elections. This is just the beginning.
For sure registering to be a candidate is the easiest and cheapest aspect of participating in an election, be you male or female. It’s the advertising, campaigning, printing of campaign materials, rental of billboards and tents in which to meet potential voters that cost the big bucks. Already 31 female candidates have withdrawn from the polls, either because they felt they were not prepared enough to participate, or to yield their places to other women candidates. It will be very interesting to see how female candidates campaign and reach out to women voters. Will they use some of the same tactics that male candidates do? For sure yes, but they will also be able to use other means, and for sure their women-only campaign tents will be big draws for Saudi women and young girls curious to see what various female candidates have to say, offer and promise to improve the quality of their lives.
Saudi women certainly have many issues of concern to them, from the safety of their local streets and the lack of public playgrounds for their children to play in; to the high price of marriage dowries to inadequate garbage collection in their streets. These are all issues that Saudi women face collectively on a national level and on a local level in all of their neighborhoods.
Saudi women should remember that the suffrage of women around the world has been a long and hard battle, starting with New Zealand granting women the right to vote as far back as 1893, to the United States doing so in 1920; Brazil in 1932; Switzerland only in 1971; Jordan in 1974; Kuwait in 2005 and finally Saudi Arabia in 2011.
What is very interesting looking at the history of women gaining the right to vote around the globe is that land-owning, and therefore tax-paying, women were often the first allowed to vote. That was the case of Swedish taxpaying female members of guilds, who were allowed to vote in 1718. Property-owning women in the Australian state of South Australia were allowed to vote in local elections in 1861. In the United Kingdom, female ratepayers were allowed to vote in local elections in 1869, with universal franchise coming only in 1928. Individual US territories and states started allowing women to vote from as early as 1869 in the Wyoming Territory.
That the voting age in the Kingdom has been reduced from 21 to 18 years of age is a great development, as this will allow more young Saudis to participate in the elections. And the fact that two-thirds of the municipal council seats will be elected and only one-third appointed by the government is a great achievement for the Saudi people.
Hopefully Saudi women will grasp this historic opportunity to participate in our country’s civic life and make their mark on our society by heartily taking part in the elections. I am sure they will impress us with their dedication and hard work, and I look forward to seeing more and more Saudi women voting and running as candidates.
Learning to pay more for gasoline
This column appeared in Arab News on Aug. 02, 2015:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The move by the United Arab Emirates to raise the price of gasoline at the pump by 24 percent from Aug. 1 was a brave one and is a sign of the times. Once again the UAE is being a trailblazer among the Gulf countries, realizing that despite our vast reserves of oil and our low production costs, compared to the US and other countries, our oil will not last forever and we can get much more for it by exporting it rather than selling it at heavily subsidized prices at home.
The initial reaction of Gulf citizens at this news most probably is one of shock and outrage. After all, most of us have grown up with dirt cheap gasoline as our birthright, costing only a few halalas a liter. Having to pay 1.72 dirhams per liter, let alone the new price of 2.14 dirhams per liter, is outrageous to your average Gulf citizen.
But with the drop in the world price of oil from over $100 a barrel over a year ago to the current average of $52 a barrel of today, our rulers have begun to realize that despite our large foreign currency reserves that we accumulated during the years of high oil prices, which are now helping cushion our budget shortcomings, we must stop wasting so much energy domestically both in our cars and in our homes.
Most citizens think that cheap gasoline and electricity have no cost to the government or to society, but they are wrong.
Today, Saudi Arabia has to use one-third of its oil production just to meet electricity demand at home, oil which could have been exported and sold to earn much more income for our government.
And our electricity consumption just keeps on growing. The main reason of course is because of our high temperatures, especially in the summer, where everything has to be air-conditioned 24-hours a day, just to make life bearable. But then our cheap, subsidized power rates encourage people to waste electricity by leaving lights on in their homes all day long, even when they are not at home, and to leave lights on in rooms, when they are at home, in rooms that they are not using.
Some families even leave their air-conditioners running constantly when they go on vacation, even though no one is left at home during that period.
Our cheap gasoline price in the Kingdom, currently 57 halalas a liter (16 US cents) leaves us with the third cheapest gasoline in the world. Only Libya and Venezuela have cheaper gasoline than ours. But is that really something to be proud of? I don’t think so as it just encourages waste. Have you seen how many of our young men drive aimlessly around the streets of our cities on the weekends and during holidays?
If gasoline were SR1.50 a liter, I doubt we would see so many of them roaming the streets as before, which would be a big relief to the young women who get harassed by them.Saving our natural resources and using them wisely should be seen as a patriotic duty and the right thing to do for our nation’s future. Our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) encouraged us not to be wasteful and to help the less fortunate. Let us follow his advice and stop wasting our oil and electricity so that we can help ourselves and our future generations.
Criminalizing hate speech
This article was published in Arab News on June 21, 2015:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
In these uncertain and turbulent times, we in the Kingdom need to promote unity now more than ever. With the bloody Daesh group wreaking havoc on Iraq and Syria, and the civil war next door in Yemen, we are surrounded by chaos, violence and death. And at home we have had to deal with our own terrorists, who after being brainwashed by an extremist ideology launched two separate attacks recently on Shiite mosques in the Kingdom’s eastern region in an attempt to sow sectarian strife.
It seems hard to believe, but so many of these young Saudis who are lured by the siren call of the extremists must really believe in the falsehoods that are fed to them by the terrorists, blissfully unaware that the peace and stability of Saudi Arabia has not come at an easy price for our forefathers who grew up 70 years ago, before the oil boom, in times of great financial hardships.
What we thought were going to be the liberating winds of the Arab Spring in 2011 turned mostly to violence against innocent civilians and instability that has left the whole Middle East in the utter shambles that it is in today. We should thank God a thousand times over that we can still go to bed without hearing bombs falling nearby; that we have electricity all of the time; that we have a strong government running the affairs of the nation, and an economy that gives Saudis a GDP per capita matching that of industrialized nations.
This is why I was surprised to read recently in this paper that the Shoura Council decided not to discuss proposals to set up a national unity project. Shoura members in favor of such an initiative had proposed that the government punish those convicted of promoting hate speech to jail terms ranging from six months to five years and a fine of SR500,000. The arguments against such an initiative were the ones we are used to hearing in other countries too: Why should we have new laws regulating public behavior when we already have so many laws on the books; and just writing down regulations in a new law will not necessarily produce change.
In the United States, these are usually the arguments of social conservatives who do not want hate laws enacted meant to protect people that are discriminated against, such as blacks, women and the handicapped. The point of this new law would be to stop those Saudis who make sectarian and racist comments under the guise of free speech, and who expect to get away with it. This should no longer be tolerated and our government and society should take swift action against those who insist on dividing Saudis according to their national, racial or sectarian origins.
After all, our founder King Abdul Aziz did not unify our country to just have our national fabric be ripped apart today by sectarian and racist violence.
For too long we have looked the other way as extremist preachers have spouted their words of hate and discrimination, poisoning the minds of young Saudis and thus producing new generations that hate others of their own countrymen because they are too dark, don’t look Arab enough or are of a different sect. I applaud Shoura member Abdullah Al-Fifi for supporting the national unity project and for pointing out that the Islamic Affairs Ministry has not done enough, or indeed done anything visible, to implement anti-extremist programs in schools and mosques.
The government has rightly clamped down on the hate speech of imams across the country, ordering them not to talk about sectarian issues, and instructing them to have sermons (khutbas) that encourage unity and social cohesion.
With the Arab world in flames we cannot afford disunity or discord in our midst. The stakes are just too high and as the repository of Islam’s two holiest mosques we indeed have a duty not just to ourselves, but to the whole Muslim world, to keep the Kingdom a safe, clean and prosperous place where all Muslims are welcome, be they from Africa or Asia.
A huge sigh of relief
This is my column that appeared in Arab News on Feb. 01, 2015:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
I was very pleased to read the report this week of the announcement from the Ministry of Justice that courts in Riyadh have sentenced more than 65 men to prison terms ranging from two days to three months for refusing to heed court rulings in favor of their former wives. Finally, these women who have suffered from not receiving their alimony payments to not being able to see their children because of mean-spirited ex-husbands, are getting some long overdue justice.
In our country where men have the upper hand, many women and their children are made to suffer unnecessarily by vengeful ex-husbands who do not want to pay the alimony they owe them, and many times make it nearly impossible for their ex-wives to see their children if they have custody of them. And in our male guardianship system, an ex-husband can very easily make the lives of his ex-wife and children a living hell if so desires by refusing to pay alimony, blocking the ex-wife from seeing her children and refusing to do the necessary paperwork that children need for enrollment in schools and to get government IDs and services.
It is clear that this has been a problem for a very long time, and our government has recognized this now, signaling that its patience has run out with misbehaving ex-husbands, who cause wholly unnecessary suffering and embarrassment to their ex-wives and children when they pull such illegal stunts. For sure such shenanigans are not unique to Saudi Arabia. Divorced husbands, all over the world, have for decades been skipping alimony payments and trying to get away with it. Here in Brazil they also jail ex-husbands who miss alimony payments too many times, especially when minor children depend on the payments for survival.
The other piece of good news in the announcement said that the ministry has recently allowed, in cooperation with the Supreme Judiciary Council, single mothers the right to visit the Civil Status offices, Passport Department offices, schools and departments of education, and some government and private bodies to deal with formalities and transactions related to their children. This is an excellent development, as it will allow divorced mothers to take charge of their children’s lives and not be wholly dependent on ex-husbands, who may or may not be helpful. How many times have I seen single women in government departments trying to get some bureaucratic issue resolved, papers in hand, only to be treated as if they were lepers with a contagious disease and desperately being shunted from window to window. With this new regulation, hopefully single women, who do not have a husband to do these types of essential errands for them, will no longer be treated so badly or ignored.
Divorced women and their children have long deserved better treatment in our society. Perhaps with this new crackdown on errant ex-husbands and new rules that allow better access to government offices to these single mothers, their situation will improve. Being divorced is already hard enough, and to have to endure not getting alimony payments and possibly being blocked from seeing your own children can only make a bad situation unbearable. We should strive to be a modern, just and fair society that respects the rights of all. Punishing miserly ex-husbands is a good start in that direction.